By Rahim Hamid
March 20, 2017
This article presents a brief history of Al-Ahwaz. It highlights the sufferings of the Ahwazi Arab people under the Iranian occupation, and offers an introduction to the contemporary history of the Ahwaz struggle for liberation and the fight to regain independence stolen by Iran in 1925.
For too long, Ahwazi Arabs have suffered in silence, the ultimate invisible victims. It is hard to understand just how isolated and betrayed the Ahwazi people feel, savagely persecuted by Iran for almost a century with the silent, treacherous complicity of the international community. Compounding this problem is the media blackout surrounding events in Ahwaz, with the current regime’s effective hermetic sealing off of the region assisted by the collusion of the world which is either wholly indifferent or swallows the Iranian regime’s obscene lie of ‘resistance to occupation’ wholesale.
Ahwazis face vast challenges in bringing attention to the plight of the people in a world constantly preoccupied with “more pressing concerns” and a region awash in systemic violence, much of it directly or indirectly courtesy of the same regime responsible for their suffering.
Despite living in the region which holds over 95 percent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran – the reason for the British backing of Iran’s 1925 annexation of Ahwaz in exchange for oil contracts – Ahwazi Arabs live in medieval poverty under an effective apartheid system, being viewed as inferiors due to their Arab ethnicity; most of the population exists below the poverty line, with limited or no access to jobs, education, healthcare, or even basic utilities such as electricity and gas or running water.
Ethnic cleansing of Ahwazis is routine, with hundreds of thousands forced from their homes without any notification or compensation. Iranian settlers are paid incentives to move to the region to work in the oil and gas industries (with Ahwazis forbidden from taking any but the most menial jobs in this industry), where they live in ethnically homogenous Persians-only settlements provided with all mod cons where Arabs are forbidden from living.
With the UN’s ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ asserting that freedom and rights are the birthrights of all peoples without exception, the international community has a moral and ethical obligation to defend the Ahwazi people from brutal persecution; indeed, after almost a century of systematic betrayal of the Ahwazi people in favour of supporting a series of vicious and racist regimes, the world owes the Ahwazi people at the very least the basic human decency of solidarity and assistance in putting an end to 92 years and counting of a historic injustice.
In this article my concern is to provide readers with an opportunity to understand the oppression of Ahwazi people suffer and our just struggle for self-determination
Ahwaz is bounded on the west by Iraq, to the south west by the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, and to the north and east and south east by the Zagros Mountains, which form a natural divide between Ahwaz and Iran. Ahwaz has a population of eight to ten million Arabs.
The natural resources of Ahwaz include abundant petroleum and natural gas reserves, and the region’s soil has a great potential for agriculture. Three important rivers irrigate arable lands in Ahwaz: the Karoon, the Jarahi and the Karkheh.
Ahwaz is a part of the Arab world. It is an Arab nation, occupied by a foreign power.
Ahwaz was historically called Arabistan meaning lands of Arabs and was independent of Iran, and was annexed by the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, whose forces invaded in 1925. After overthrowing and murdering Sheikh Khazaal, the last Arab ruler of Arabistan, Reza Pahlavi initiated a program of Persianisation by enforcing Farsi as the official language and banning the teaching of Arabic in schools. In 1936 Arabistan was renamed as Khuzestan to further alienate it from its Arab identity.
The Iranian conquest of Ahwaz in 1925 met fierce resistance from a proud people, many Ahwazi were murdered by the Persian troops, and the resistance continues to this day.
At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries the future for Ahwaz seemed promising.
Khazaal, the son of Jabber Mardaw, became the Emir of Mohammareh after the death of his brother Sheikh Mezaal, who had governed the emirate of Mohammareh for some ten years.
Emir Khazaal was a very intelligent leader, astute in foreign policy, and he sought to build the prosperity and glory of Ahwaz through economic development.
He maintained cautious, demur ties with Iraq, and in particular with Prince Faisal and the sheikh of Al-Saudi, as well as other Arab Gulf countries, such as Kuwait.
Several important events took place during Sheikh Khazaal’s reign:
1: The discovery of oil in Ahwaz in 1908. The discovery of abundant petroleum deposits incited the Persian state’s desire for colonial conquest, and motivated moves by Great Britain and other Western countries to extend and expand their control and colonial influence in Ahwaz.
2: The rise of foreign power domination in the Arabian Gulf region.
3: The outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Although most fighting took place in Europe, the Emirate of Ahwaz became part of the contest because of its strategic location.
4:The collapse of the Ghajari reign in Persia(Iran), and the beginning of the Pahlavi monarchy, which invaded and occupied Ahwaz in 1925.
The First World War pitted the Othman Empire against the British Empire. The British government sent troops to Abadan and the Emirate of Mohammareh.
The military mission was given the strategic objective of invading Ahwaz and seizing control of the oil in Ahwaz, which was to be destined for British consumption. Sheikh Khazaal allied with Britain during the war to expel the Turks from Basra, in the hope of securing the independence of the Emirate of Ahwaz.
Mohammareh served as an important base for Britain’s operations during the war, and Sheikh Khazaal was allied with Great Britain throughout the war in the region because the Khazaal desperately needed support from a great foreign power, such as Britain, to promote and protect the Emirate of Ahwaz against invasion by the Persian state as well as by the Ottoman Empire.
Sheikh Khazaal could see that he stood between three fires: Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Persia state, and he probably had no alternative but to ally with the first, because the other two presented immediate threats, as they geographically encroached upon Ahwaz territory. Sheikh Khazaal collaborated with Great Britain with the hope that it would support his rule over an independent Emirate of Ahwaz. Great Britain was simply the lesser of three evils.
Sheikh Khazaal was also one of the candidates for the monarchy in Iraq, but when he saw that Britain’s diplomats were not enthusiastic about his candidacy, he withdrew his candidacy.
The British Secretary for Affairs of the Middle East in Baghdad at that time, Mr. Bill, urged Sheikh Khazaal to desist from his candidacy in order to open the way for Prince Faisal to win the throne of Iraq.
Great Britain did not want Sheikh Khazaal to ascend to the Iraqi throne because this would have furthered the natural unity of Iraq and Ahwaz, potentially creating a serious political and strategic challenge to Great Britain’s ambitions. Thus, under tremendous pressure from his indispensable ally, Sheikh Khazaal waived his candidacy for the throne of Iraq, clearing the way for the ascendancy of Prince Faisal.
Sheikh Khazaal’s political position benefited from his nomination for the monarchy of Iraq and participation in treaties with Britain. Thus, the Khazaal became a prominent figure in international relations in the region. Reza Khan responded by developing plans to topple Sheikh Khazaal.
Reza Khan’s diaries make the animosity and intentions clear: “it is necessary to eliminate the prince of Ahwaz, whose rule has lasted for years independently within the boundaries of his emirate as a result of foreign support; Tehran’s government has no authority whatsoever over him.”
Reza Khan became the top commander of Iran’s armed forces in 1921 after removing Minister Zia’eddin Tabatabaee. Subsequently, as Prime Minister, in 1925 he proclaimed himself King of Persia.
During this time, Reza Shah changed his policy toward Russia. Political ties improved between Tehran and Moscow because the Soviets, pleasantly surprised after Reza Shah took power in Persia, and in the belief that the Shah led a national and revolutionary movement and that his military coup was a historical event inaugurating new prospects for Russian interests in Iran, and further trusting that Reza Shah’s military dictatorship was part of a transitional phase toward a republican system of rule and good relations with Iran, began the negotiations that led to the Russo-Iranian Treaty of 1921.
The agreement reached fully recognized the independence of Iran and eliminated all of Iran’s financial debts to the Soviet Union. Russian interests in maintaining friendly political ties with Iran were clearly motivated by the need to have access to warm water ports in the Arabian Gulf and to counter Britain’s colonialist ambitions over the region’s petroleum resources and commercial activity.
Britain astutely recognized that preserving and keeping its political and economic interests would require closer political ties with Iran. It sought to strengthen Reza Shah as a bulwark to prevent communist Russia from accessing the Arabian Gulf. At the same time, Britain wanted to dominate Persia to guarantee its own political and economic interests in Persia and the Arabian Gulf region.
Reza Shah seized the opportunity for closer political ties with Britain to request the latter surrender its protection of the Emirate of Ahwaz and Sheikh Khazaal, thus permitting the invasion and military occupation of Ahwaz. Britain acceded to the request, paving the way for the Shah to occupy the Emirate of Ahwaz and murder Sheikh Khazaal on April 20, 1925.
In fact, the tragedy begins with betrayal by the international community. Sheikh Khazaal knew full well that the King of Persia planned to invade and occupy Ahwaz; the Khazaal looked to Britain to fulfil its political pledges to protect and stand against the imminent Persian invasion and to provide military assistance for the Ahwaz army, but Britain broke all its treaties with Sheikh Khazaal, and instead plotted with the Persian state to permit the military occupation of Ahwaz.
The Persian state occupied Ahwaz with blood on its hands, forcibly confiscating lands from the indigenous Arab population, which had lived upon them for thousands of years. From 1925 to the present day, the Iranian state has carried out ethnic cleansing, mercilessly attempting to eradicate Ahwazi Arabs from their homeland.
There is no uncertainty that the Ahwazi Arabs people are one of the most forgotten oppressed peoples in the Middle East region. Notwithstanding the fulfilment of every requirement for Ahwazis to be a nation, they remain deprived of retrieving their own national rights and of any political framework to protect its existence, particularities and to ensure its development. As this nation enjoys a common historical tradition, racial or ethnic identity, cultural homogeneity, linguistic unity, religious or ideological affinity, territorial connection, common economic life.
It should be stressed that successive Persian regimes, whatever their varying political and ideological orientations, have not differed from each other in brutally subjugating the peoples under their occupation, most particularly the Ahwazi Arab people, who have been denied all rights, with all the occupying regimes refusing to allow the most basic of human rights or even to acknowledge the legitimacy of such rights for Ahwazis.
Successive Iranian regimes have attempted, by a policy of ethnic cleansing and ‘Persianisation’, to destroy the foundations of Ahwazis’ Arab identity, with this savage racism even extending to banning the people from publicly speaking their native Arabic language, and to banning expressions of Ahwazi culture and even of the wearing of their traditional Arab dress. All Ahwazis are forced to speak the Iranian language, Farsi, in public, and persecuted for speaking in Arabic, with anti-Arab racism being a strong component of Iranian culture and one encouraged by successive regimes.
Even the Arabic place names in Ahwaz were changed to Farsi equivalents in the 1930s in another effort to eradicate the people’s collective memory of the region’s and their own Arab identity, with successive regimes also resettling large numbers of Ahwazis in other parts of Iran in an effort to change the region’s demographic composition and eliminate its Arab nature.
The Islamic regime that came out of the 1979 Revolution in Iran did not change the policy of denying the right to self-determination for non-Persian nations, such as the Ahwazi Arab people. On the contrary, the new regime intensified the repression through a campaign of executions perpetrated against anyone who would dare oppose the Rule of the Jurisprudent (Velayat-e Faqih).
Death sentences were ordered on the basis of bizarre accusations, such as “corruption on earth”, “blasphemy”, and “waging war against God”.
Since the emergence of the Islamic regime, all the peoples living under the Iranian state, and in particular the non-Persian peoples, have been forced to endure harsh economic conditions, multifaceted repression, terrible injustices, and even the deprivation of the most basic necessities, as are most dear to life.
The Iranian mullah regime has, by its Persianisation policy, spared no efforts to destroy the pillars of Ahwazi existence, their shared language, culture and history.
Language is a fundamental component of a nation’s existence, so the clerical regime has outlawed the teaching of Arabic, forcing the Ahwazis to learn Persian.
The Ahwaz region under the current regime is also witnessing a deliberate resettlement policy, whereby Persians are given jobs and homes in the region and the local Ahwazi people forced out due to poverty brought about by lack of employment opportunities. This is a deliberate policy, designed to change the demographic makeup of the Ahwaz region and so dilute its culture and traditions.
The systematic policy of ethnic cleansing against Ahwazi Arabs originates from the Persian state’s racist ideology of a homogeneous nation being a necessary basis for colonialist, expansionist ambitions to establish an absolute mono-ethnic country (the Persian Empire). The goal of the Persian chauvinists was to incorporate the sizeable occupied non-Persian territories, including Ahwaz, Kurdistan, and south Azerbaijan, into a ‘unified’ ethnic Persian state.
In fact, the Iranian state has harboured deep-rooted hatred and animosity, and an insanely hostile doctrine against the Arab people for years, and this chauvinistic doctrine has served to legitimize without legitimacy discriminatory policies against Arabs. For this reason, the Ahwazi Arab people have faced double repression and prosecution at the hands of the Persian state, whose goal is to wipe out the Ahwazi Arabs, and permanently eradicate them from their homeland.
The systematic and uninterrupted reactionary policy of the Persian state leaves no space for Arabic culture and the Arabic heritage of the Ahwazi people, even in their own homeland.
The scale of the oppression and injustice inflicted on Ahwazi Arabs by the Persian occupiers is almost incomparable with other colonial experiences, even the most brutal occupations.
The Iranian regime authorities do not even bother to conceal the statistics that portray the abject poverty of the Ahwazi Arabs, structurally high unemployment, pervasive addiction to drugs, almost universal illiteracy among women and men.
The Iranian officials are, by their own statistics, responsible for the systematic devastation, the misery and inhuman crimes committed against the Ahwazi Arabs, whose terrible poverty contrasts sharply with the wealth of their homeland, the richest region in the Middle East. The Ahwazi Arabs live in a rich abundant land, but are deprived of the most basic necessities of life.
Under the Iranian state’s systematic anti-Arab policies, Ahwazis then and today have almost no rights, including the right to live in peace and pursue prosperity in their own land.
Immediately following the military occupation of Ahwaz, the Ahwazi people were deemed to be second class, unwanted Arab citizens, and were immediately subjected to daily institutionalized and codified racism and persecution.
However, growing awareness among Ahwazi youth about their legitimate rights, and the heritage of generation after generation’s constant struggle for national rights, has prevented Iran from keeping the lid on the systematic, sustained oppression of the Ahwazi Arabs.
To this day, the Iranian regime continues to conduct harsh discriminatory practices in Ahwaz. The goal is to weaken the popular will of the Ahwazi people by economic strangulation, by excluding them from employment, depriving them from benefiting from their local natural resources, and applying a policy of collective punishment, including a campaign of executions, land confiscations, and arrest and imprisonment without cause, as well as the razing and destruction of homes with bulldozers, and the routine subjection of prisoners to rape and torture while in custody.
The resistance to the military occupation of Ahwaz has also continued without interruption. Many Ahwazis, both men and women, have fought and sacrificed themselves for the liberation of Ahwaz, never surrendering in their struggle for freedom.
For years, the lack of solidarity from the Arab countries, and in particular the neighbouring Arab Gulf countries, and the apathy of international organizations with regards human rights violations by the Iranian state, has given Iran a free hand to exercise a power to decide life or death in all the occupied communities, including Ahwaz, but also south-Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Baluchistan, where repression and terrible suffering remain unaddressed by the international community.
The military occupation of Ahwaz has sparked a great tradition of struggle for self-determination and identity as Ahwazi Arabs by many brave men and women, among them martyrs who have fought and sacrificed their personal liberty, and even their lives, for the liberation of Ahwaz from the Persian occupation and the Iranian regime’s brutal repression. Their sacrifice cements the commitment of the Ahwazi people to fight by any and all means to achieve freedom and independence for Ahwaz.
Rahim Hamid, Ahwazi Arab freelance journalist based in the USA